Thomas Juneau and Srdjan Vucetic are associate professors with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, and co-editors, with Philippe Lagassé, of the recently published book Canadian Defence Policy in Theory and Practice.
Canada’s difficult war in Afghanistan is over – as is our short stint in Mali. But the world stage around us has grown increasingly tense. In addition to the climate crisis, we are seeing growing confrontations between the West and countries such as Russia, China and Iran, while U.S. President Donald Trump’s fight against impeachment and his administration’s reckless foreign-policy moves have made the United States a destabilizing force.
It’s easy for Canadian voters to ignore defence policy when other election issues seem to more directly affect them. But these issues matter in the longer term.
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The political parties agree that Canada faces no conventional direct military threats in the near future. Lesser threats such as terrorism certainly exist, but the prevailing understanding holds that the main role of the military is to support our allies, ideally in the context of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the United Nations.
The little that the parties have said on defence reveals mostly minor differences. The Liberals published a long-awaited defence review in 2017, which calls for a major bump in spending after 2019. The Conservatives promise to procure more big military gear faster, to increase support for the Ukrainian armed forces and to join the U.S. ballistic-missile-defence program. The NDP and Greens emphasize nuclear disarmament and, more so than the Liberals, peacekeeping.
The next government is likely to face five key challenges.
The first is the transition from a rules-based international order to a more fragmented order built around a handful of centres of power, most of them decidedly illiberal. If the world is about to enter an age marked not by American leadership but by vigorous disputes over the rules of the game, Canada could be forced to partly abandon its commitment to multilateralism and orient its defence policy toward issue-specific, “plurilateral” initiatives. Rather than reflexively looking to the UN or NATO, the next government might well find itself pondering the words of the Iraq War-era U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld: The mission defines the coalition, not the other way around.
What, then, might these missions be? In recent years, the armed forces focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, as well as on training and peace operations. This will remain important, but so will finding a place for Canada in a world returning to great power competition. This is not an either/or question; undeniably, the military should be ready to fight both conventional and unconventional threats. The challenge, rather, is one of calibration.
The second challenge relates to the first. Canadian defence policy remains heavily reliant on the United States in everything from transport and logistics to intelligence and diplomatic heft. Since politics-as-usual U.S. foreign policy is no longer guaranteed, the next government should undertake steps to minimize Canada’s age-old practice of riding on our neighbour’s coattails. This would require more spending, but also new strategies and approaches, notably with respect to continental defence.
This leads to the third challenge – the nexus between strategy and emerging technologies. The next government will need to invest in innovative military equipment and practices in artificial intelligence, data science and advanced computing, and autonomous systems. The challenge here lies not only in making sure we have the necessary resources, but also in addressing the ethical, administrative, legal and political questions that these technologies raise – with one outstanding case in point being cyberwarfare.
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The fourth challenge is Canada’s messy weapons-procurement system. Given that the perverse policies of past governments have a lock-in effect on future ones, the next government should continue efforts to reform the system, not simply by better matching priorities to long-term financial provisions but also by boosting the ranks of the procurement bureaucracy.
The final challenge, naturally, is climate change. Canada’s armed forces remain behind their U.S. counterparts in terms of how they’re approaching the implications of climate-related hazards for their operations at home and abroad. Here, too, the next government would do well to increase investments in research, equipment and training, including with respect to the “greening” of military activities.
The current federal election campaign has been overwhelmed by multiple, mostly small-scale and highly partisan issues, leaving major but less buzzy priorities lost in the furor. Defence issues, which are complicated and often appear to be distant concerns, fall under this umbrella, as they so often do in Canada.
But these five challenges matter. And in the long term, whether voters acknowledge them or not, they will have a major impact on Canada’s security and prosperity.
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